Bittersweet

The family has driven to New Orleans for my daughter's graduation from middle school. It was a long drive with a baby and a restless four-year-old in the car, but fortunately, both kids and wife are good and reasonable travelers.

Yesterday we started the day with the graduation ceremony. I was the only man in the nave not wearing a suit and tie. My daughter may presume that it's just one more way that her dad can embarrass her in front of her peers; really, it was because New Orleans in late May is hot as an athlete's armpit and I was desperately trying to stay comfortable.

After the ceremony, we parted company as the graduate and her mother's family were having lunch at Commander's Palace. Places like that are supremely hard to navigate with the little ones, so we decided we'd catch up later on. The Durham posse drove through McDonalds' (the anti-Commander's) and went out to see our lot in St. Bernard. On the way down Claiborne Avenue, we saw the tent city that has sprung up beneath the I-10 overpass. Living in a crippled city is hard enough, but it was horrifying to see that so many people are littered under a bridge in a camp.

We've seen our lot in all its post-Katrina phases, so there were no real surprises for the grown-ups. The four-year-old, for whom the house on Mehle Avenue is now just a fading blip, walked around with his mom as she showed him where his room was and various landmarks, all covered by grass. I'm not sure what his impression of the place was. The street showed signs of development up toward Judge Perez Drive, but as you got further in, the decay was still evident; the old folks' home at the end of the street was still standing but just barely. The elementary school and its planetarium was in the process of demolition. Lots of slabs and empty houses. It was very depressing, to say the least.

We turned around and went back on St. Claude Avenue. There's a new skate park, but like the abandoned Jazzland/Six Flags nearby, there's no shade. At least there's someplace for kids in the Parish to go that doesn't involve riding their bikes around the ruins.

The little ones fell asleep on the ride out of St. Bernard, so we decided to go and look around in Lakeview, where we'd lived before Arabi. I guess I'd forgotten that Hynes Elementary School on Harrison Avenue had been demolished because when we drove over the bridge and I saw the vacant lot, I burst into tears. I had walked the graduate there a hundred times when she was a student at Hynes. Fortunately, I gained my composure and we drove on to survey the lots where other houses I'd lived had stood. (Hynes will have a new location soon on Gentilly Boulevard.)

Nothing has been built on the Filmore or the Catina street lots. There are plenty of new constructions throughout Lakeview, but not where I'd lived. It occurred to me that most of the homes I'd known when I lived in the city were now gone. It was like emptying out a large part of the thirteen years I'd been a resident in New Orleans, making it seem weirdly, impossibly erased.

We came back to the Maison Belle Reve, the B&B we'd stayed at during the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras. What a lovely place to stay, especially for visitors with children. Our hosts have big 'for sale' signs up in the yard, since maintaining a huge old Queen Ann-style house, with its twenty-foot ceilings and accompanying utility bills, has become impossible for them. I'm sad to seem them sell, as they've been nothing but accommodating, generous and sweet to my family.

Dinner was at La Crepe Nanou, another old favorite haunt. Crab and creamed spinach crepes for my wife and me; the four-year-old tried a crepe with bacon, egg and creamed spinach but infinitely preferred the butter and sugar version he had for dessert. The baby ate avocado ferociously and very physically; I did my best to clear the semi-circle of detritus that she produced around the highchair before we left.

Today, we took the streetcar down St. Charles Avenue to go eat beignets at Cafe du Monde. I never rode streetcars when I lived here, but I'll admit there was a sweet breeze passing through the open windows as we rode down the neutral ground to Canal Street. We walked the rest of the way up on Decatur Street. The beignets were sweet, the iced coffee was cool and refreshing in the heat. We blasted through part of the French Market before turning back to catch the streetcar back to the B&B.

Saturday afternoon we spent in Algiers at the home of my daughter's mother and her husband, enjoying meat and veggies from the grill and visiting with family and old friends. I'm always reassured when I see the love my daughter has with her New Orleans family, and much as I wish she was with us 24/7/365, I also know that she's safe, secure and happy where she is, which is the most important thing.

When we left Sunday morning at six, I was ready to go home. Visits to New Orleans for me are like seeing an old girlfriend again--nostalgic, poignant but filled with a certain relief that it's not my life anymore. I miss a lot of my world there, but I'm grateful that I have moved on. North Carolina is where I'm from, make no mistake, and I'm very happy to be living there again. I will always visit New Orleans as long as my daughter is a resident, but I find no desire left to belong to that city. Its grip on my soul has been loosed enough to get into another more comfortable place.

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